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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon

I ran on Islay once. My tenure at Laphroaig had nibbled away at the brief window I had allowed to get myself from the Beautiful Hollow by the Broad Bay to my next port of call, and consequently I was late for the 11AM Lagavulin tour. My canter from my bike to Ruth and the rest of the tour party was all of 20 metres, however: on August 3rd, 165 people put trainer to tarmac to cover 13 island miles in the Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon.

A percentage of those entrants sprinting out from Bowmore to Islay airport and back hailed from the whisky writing and retailing industries. Their goal overtook that of personal glory and a new PB, however. Last year Alan Lodge, a writer for The Spirits Business, passed away as a result of a brain haemorrhage. He was 29. Journalist colleagues, Ardbeg distillery staff and whisky retailers busted a gut to raise more than £5,000 for the National Brain Appeal.

Some of the drinks writers pounding through Bowmore. Photography by Phill Williams.

 

‘My family has been overwhelmed by the support we have received from the drinks industry folk since my brother passed away last year,’ said Hannah Grace Lodge. ‘It is evident how much Alan was loved by all in the industry; Ardbeg’s sponsorship of the half and for all of these wonderful people to run and raise money in Alan’s memory is such a testament to him. He always joked about being a legend… turns out, he kind of was one. Thank you so much to all who have been involved in supporting The National Brain Appeal in Alan’s name, he would be honoured.’

To convey a little of the cut-and-thrust of the event, Quercus’s press release suggests that high-drama sporting reportage as well as whisky broadcasts could be the company’s new niche: ‘Chris Losh was the first Ardbeg runner to finish (in 31st place overall) taking six minutes off his personal best with a blistering time of 1 hour 36 minutes. Richard Woodard finished in 1 hour 51 minutes beating his own PB set 30 years ago. Hamish Smith finished in just under two hours, a milestone that eluded veteran Olly Wehring. Joel Harrison entertained spectators by running in fancy dress. After an engrossing five miles of cat and mouse and cheered on by an ecstatic crowd, Sandrae Sharpen pounced to thrash a disconsolate Marcin Miller in the final straight. Several team members, including Laura Foster, Richard Siddle and Eduardo Vivas, bravely ran through injuries and extreme pain. Sian Deegan and Rachel Ramanathan adopted a bizarre strategy of starting 45 minutes before anyone else with a self-imposed handicap of running the course pushing a wheelbarrow full of peat…’ Splendid.

One competitor, Caskstrength.net’s Joel Harrison, remarked that running has become something of a passion. ‘Getting the correct kit has been key and makes running much more enjoyable (and the obvious results of increased fitness and the ability to eat and drink more, as I’m working it all off!)’ When asked about what he partook of in the race’s feed zones, Joel asserted that nothing bar water passed his lips. It must be said, of course, that Islay water is far more invigorating than your regular drop.

From my time cycling around the island, I remember the rearing, pitted roads and often relentlessly malign winds. ‘I’ve cycled around the island before, but with running, you get a sense of how the weather changes so quickly,’ Joel revealed. ‘One minute you’re boiling hot, the next soaking wet and so the cycle continues!’

‘I’d highly recommend everyone to have a go. It’s not easy, especially when you’re training is all in Central London (and as a result totally flat), but the challenge was excellent.’ Keep an eye out for entry forms for the 2014 event on the Islay Half-Marathon website. I am very tempted to have a go myself: leave the bike at home this time and see Islay with a running vest on.

 

Photography by Phill Williams.

 

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‘Cheese and Whisky Gang Thegither!’

If you found yourself stood beside a mashtun in a Scotch whisky distillery this summer – and I really hope you did – your be-tartaned guide may have mentioned the final resting place for the fragrant porridge caked at the bottom. With the sugary wort having been piped away to the next stage of the whisky-making process, the remaining ‘draff’ will ultimately nourish Old MacDonald’s coos. NB – if they even hint that bovine intoxication results they are lying: there is no alcohol created during mashing.

A distillery with draff to offload - in this case, Tobermory.

 

I rather like the ancient-seeming and mutually-beneficial relationships at the heart of whisky production, itself an agricultural off-shoot once upon a time. The farmer of yesteryear would grow the barley, malt it, and distil it, diverting any waste products towards the fortification of his livestock. Distillers and farmers may no long amount to the same person, but draff still supplies much-needed nutrition for cattle and sheep raised on farmland neighbouring whisky distilleries.

Mull of Kintyre Extra Mature Cheddar.

A charming press release appeared the other day attesting to the enduring beef/whisky bond: Tobermory have honoured Mull of Kintyre Mature Cheddar, recognised at this year’s British Cheese Awards as the Best Scottish Cheese ahead of 79 other contenders. Produced in the First Milk Campeltown Creamery, it is one leading example of the uniquely sharp and fruity cheese first produced at the Sgriob Ruadh Farm on the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides by Jeff Reade. This year’s award was dedicated to Mr Reade, whose legacy is sure to be a heartening one: whereas Scotland could only claim 24 artisan cheese varieties in 1994, today there are 80.

Jeff Reade.

The whisky and cheddar connection is a more tangible one than mere sponsorship alone, however. Tobermory draff historically provided sterling winter feed for Jeff Reade’s cattle and today the Reade family craft a cheese incorporating the peaty portion of Tobermory make, Ledaig. Congratulations to all at the First Milk Campbeltown Creamery, and here’s to the craft producers on Mull generally lovingly nurturing some mightily tasty wares.

Isle of Mull Cheddar’s sharp, yeasty characteristics are said to hail from the unique pungency of draff which impregnates the milk when eaten. However, I’d also like to make mention of whisky and cheese’s delectable compatability even when the dairy cows have been no nearer draff than the moon. In partnership with Svetlana Kukharchuk at St Andrews’ Guid Cheese Shop, we have on two previous occasions allied some of Europe’s most distinctive cheeses with a selection of Scotland’s boldest spirits. Vintage gouda makes a splendid marriage with Bunnahabhain 12yo, and the double cream Chaource combines magically with Auchentoshan 12yo. Indeed, Auchentoshan’s sister distillery, Glen Garioch, actively encourages this pairing with cheeses as a signature serve.

At their most spectaular, taking cheese and whisky together can unleash tertiary flavours neither possessed on their own: the creamy textures can aid in taming the whisky’s alcohol, allowing nutty flavours with overtones of butterscotch or spice to enthral the palate. The golden ticket as far as I am concerned, however, combines blue cheese with peated whiskies. At a more recent tasting, Svetlana’s Gorgonzola Piccante shared a bed with Benromach’s Peat Smoke. The dry smoky malt smoothed out the blue mould piquancy while the soft richness of the cheese’s body lengthened the fruity flavours sublty embedded in the whisky. A triumph!

Take the plunge with some cheese and whisky pairings for yourself. I could use some company on my Gout ward.

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The Mon-Stramash

A Weekend of Whisky with a Difference

Full credit must go to anybody with sufficient passion and organisational nouse to get a whisky festival off the ground and into the congested air space of dramming jamborees. Little short of knighthoods beckon for those singular people who achieved such success first time around that they are back for a second offering.

Darroch Ramsay and Scott Martin are not your average whisky enthusiasts, and their Whisky Stramash – to be held once again in The Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh – is not your average whisky jolly. I was fortunate enough to bump into these straight-talking Glaswegians at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog birthday in February 2012 when their early summer event still precipitated some anxiety. However, with impressive careers working front of house and behind the scenes for many decorated Scotch whisky brands, they boasted the expertise – not to mention wit – to deliver two days of high-octane, multi-sensory whisky experiences.

The Stramash returns on Saturday May 25th and Sunday May 26th. The press release describes the ethos behind the event as ‘mad cap pioneering and ridiculous secrecy’. ‘The Stramash combines the opportunity to try a huge array of amazing drams with fantastically eccentric experiences and installations to tantalise the senses’. Staggering in a roughly clockwise direction around a room stuffed with tables covered in whisky the Stramash is not. There was even a murder mystery going on at the Jura stand last year (see Tiger’s review on Edinburgh Whisky Blog here).

Next month, expect Glenfiddich’s portable Warehouse 47 experience, an interactive photo wall from the folks at Deanston Distillery, a pop up speakeasy and cocktails – but as Heston Blumenthal might envisage them. Many more down-the rabbit-hole diversions are guaranteed. How much for this singular and esoteric encounter, you ask? Experience four hours of serious Stramashing for £26 (sessions are from 12pm-4pm and 5pm-9pm on the Saturday, 1pm-5pm on the Sunday).

Tickets are available here: TicketSOUP

More information abounds at www.thewhiskystramash.com as well as on Twitter (@whiskystramash) and Facebook.

I wish Darroch and Scott the very best of luck for their follow-up Stramash and I have every faith that you can expect wonderful whiskies coupled with, of course, winning weirdness.

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Cutty Collaborates

I have a whisky pen-friend, and his name is Jason R. Craig. Now and again he writes to me with news about his brand (everyone should have one) and occasionally there is a sample of liquid attached.

Jason happens to be custodian of blended Scotch whisky, Cutty Sark, a label of seemingly irrepressible energy. ‘You can’t discover a new ocean until you have the courage to leave the shore’ reads my new favourite mug, courtesy of Cutty round about Easter time. They took this mantra to heart recently with two projects worthy of mention: a new blend unashamedly affiliated with America’s darkest days of Prohibition, and another expression put together by a couple of bloggers as hyperactive as they are.

Few Scotch whisky brands acknowledge that the CEOs of today owe their territorial and economic pre-eminence to the deeply clandestine efforts of their predecessors. When America was desperate for a drink, but legal statute represented something of an impediment, Scotch whisky was not about to abandon its transatlantic customers. For some time this refusal to allow police to greatly hinder profit failed to come off as strictly commendable, but Cutty Sark will soon launch a celebration of their own audacity in the 1930s: the Prohibition Edition. With a nod to Cutty’s past alliance with Captain Bill McCoy, it is a ‘reimagining of the whisky that made Cutty Sark America’s favourite Scotch – even before it was legal’.

Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell was tasked with creating a deep and powerful blend, produced in the most traditional manner. Bottled at 100 proof, it is nevertheless hoped that a smooth and complex delivery will result.

Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition 50% (to be released in the USA, then other markets in 2013)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – toasted cereals, then the aroma of a heavily-used Scalextric track: singed and hot. The smoke gives way to a dab of spice (nutmeg builds later on) and a fixing dried fruitiness. Peanut butter ice cream. Tart lemon curd, more warming spice and marshmallow sweetness.

Palate – creme caramel and honeycomb. The alcohol is very well-balanced and maximises the sweet, gentle flavour. A spicy tail with barley sugar and vanilla.

Finish – progressively drying on a toased oakiness with a hint of butterscotch.

With water the nose became much fruitier, with baked apple, peach and especially apricot. The peat supplied only a crunchy texture with a fragrance of gingerbread men with time. The palate was soft and sweet with abundant cereals and earthy peat for balance, leading into a short finish with tropical fruit impressions of kiwi and passion fruit.

So…?      I was really impressed by the liquid on show here. Indeed, the serve Cutty Sark has in mind (or had in mind, back to Prohibition days) is manifested perfectly in this robust yet easy-drinking blend. I can foresee a great deal of today’s whisky drinkers slinging this down their necks quite happily, much as their forebears would have done under very different circumstances. In fact, I am seriously tempted by a bottle of this when it emerges in the UK very soon. I tried it in a highball with equal parts whisky and soda, some Bitter Truth orange bitters and lemon peel. I conclude that this would make a perfect summer mixer.

Irrespective of a brand’s activities back in murkier times, modern day blending operations have an ivory tower feel to them. Only highly-qualified and long-apprenticed blenders are given the keys to the honed, established DNA of the blended whisky in order to create the next iteration of the brand. Not so Cutty Sark, when they collaborated with Neil and Joel of Caskstrength.net. Though 90 years old last month, the brand is happy to indulge young upstarts.

The decision on the part of Caskstrength to release a blended whisky for ‘C’ in their A-Z of whisky series came as a surprise to some, but the ambitious bloggers have – I feel – judged this bottling run sagely. Blended whisky deserves far more exposure, especially in terms of its creative, experimental side. With renowned marque such as Cutty Sark on board, this project boasted every possible advantage: intriguing stocks to ‘play’ with, as well as undeniable expertise to call upon. Kirsteen Campbell was again on hand to direct Neil and Joel’s blending efforts in order that they remained true to the brand’s flavour heritage, but concocted something unique.

Only 500 bottles, tipping the scale at 51.4%, were released late last month, and some are still available at Master of Malt. How did the boys fare?

Caskstrength and Carry On Cutty Sark 51.4% £35

Colour – fresh and clean gold.

Nose – an immediate toasty sweetness at first which hints at grain spirit, but the subtle weight puts one in mind of the golden fruits of Speyside single malts. Vanilla ice cream, in a cone. A teasing rum-like sweetness, returning to the lime pith-like grain. Demerara sugar, chewy apple and caramel.

Palate – interplay of cereal, candied orange and ginger then lemon appears on top of a puff of peat smoke. The strength keeps everything focused.

Finish – continues on a drying, smoky theme but returns to barley sugar, lemon zest and the lightest oak. Gooseberry sharpness late on begs for another sip. Clever blending!

Adding a little water, more vanilla, honey and mascarpone appeared on the nose with a berry richness and freshly baked shortbread. Dessert is served! A spicier palate developed with ginger and a pronounced honey flavour. Lavender and a grassy maltiness were very appealing with a curious muesli and Cointreau tail. The oak emerged more fully in the finish, with a coconut fragrance and more spice in the shape of nutmeg and cinnamon.

So…?      This is some achievement on the part of Caskstrength and Cutty Sark: a blend that out-blends blends. By this I mean that all of the best flavours and aromas of a sturdy, satisfying blended Scotch are present and intensified, and the result is a product of far more versatility than their ‘B’ bottling, the otherwise excellent single cask BenRiach. At £35 it is a genuine bargain for such an assured performer and I can only hope that Joel and Neil have been making enquiries to Dewar’s about their ‘D’ bottling…

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The Kiwi Share

What have Dan Carter’s left boot, Hobbits and 80,000 litres of mature single malt got in common? They were all discovered in New Zealand, before achieving prominence further afield.

The rampant rise of Australian distillers on the island of Tasmania has received a great deal of coverage with half a dozen craft enterprises making a great deal of noise. Yet for many years there has been silence from the other side of the Tasman Sea. Despite distinctly Scotch-like landscapes and a healthy ex-patriate population, New Zealand has been somewhat anonymous on the global whisky stage. Greg Ramsay wanted to change that.

Greg Ramsay of the New Zealand Whisky Co.

Since training under Regis Lemaitre at St Andrews’ Old Course Hotel Road Hole Bar as a younger man, Greg’s enthusiasm for whisky had played second fiddle to that other business which it is impossible to escape on the East Coast of Scotland: golf. Returning to his native Tasmania to build courses, it wasn’t until his skills in the financial world were called upon, together with the two-pence of Aussie distilling’s godfather Bill Lark, to evaluate some old whisky stock which had been kicking around in a warehouse near Dunedin that malt spirit occupied his full attention once more. Their appraisal was positive: Greg would buy all 600 casks of the whisky that was the legacy of the Willowbank Distillery, which operated until 1997, themselves and release it to the world as the New Zealand Whisky Company.

Some of the expressions we sampled at the Old Course Hotel.

Part of this match-making process involved Greg returning to his former place of work, the Old Course Hotel, to host a tasting of his sleeping beauties. Over the course of his talk it became clear that Greg’s intentions were not to parade New Zealand’s faded glories, but to supply fuel for a distilling renaissance on the island. With the oldest whiskies ever to hail from New Zealand, Greg hopes to oversee the rebirth of whisky-making in the area.

Greg held court before a room packed with St Andrews’ epicurean luminaries, not to mention cheese. We were welcomed into the soiree with a glass of the South Island 18yo, a wonderfully sprightly single malt considering its mature years. Once Greg’s presentation began, Ian Fenton of Gordon & MacPhail – the UK distributors for the New Zealand Whisky Co.’s stocks – performed splendidly, distributing the remaining whiskies in the ‘core range’. This has already been snapped up by the LCBO, Canada’s biggests purchaser of alcohol. Next came the DoubleWood, a red wine finish which tip-toed around fudgey grape oblivion without falling in.

The history of the liquid neatly conveys the final years of the distillery from which it hailed: acquired by a wine company after Canadian giants Seagrams sold on the business, spirit was reclaimed from patchy ex-Bourbon barrels and put into red wine casks. Pinot noir, syrah and merlot had made these casks their own once upon a time, and Greg has entertained notions of bottling the DoubleWood on a single varietal basis to demonstrate the influence of particular grapes on the final whisky.

Our next dip into the New Zealand whisky archives came in the shape of the 1993, one of only five spirits to be awarded a gold medal at the Wizards of Whisky Awards, established by Dominic Roskrow. I found it to be soft, floral and peach flesh fresh with honey and iced gingerbread on the nose. It was distinctly savoury on the palate (and no, I had not touched the cheese) with rosemary, pizza base and a strange oaky flavour. Water improved the nose still further, but couldn’t redeem the palate.

Anticipating the future through an evaluation of the past.

Greg eulogised about the ‘explorers market’ of single malt whisky, and I was delighted to have been invited along to sample a valuable and exotic find. However, at around £70 a bottle for the DoubleWood, neither it nor its stablemates amounted to the ‘destination dram’ with which I had hoped such a dear adventure overseas would  furnish me. The New Zealand Whisky Company has made available some very amiable expressions, and if ‘inoffensive’ does them a disservice, neither is ‘compelling’ exactly justified.

As a man on a whisky mission, however, Greg Ramsay is one to watch. Armed with one of the stills from the old Willowbank plant (the others are in Fiji making rum), he hopes to begin his distilling campaign by the end of the year. We shall see if Kiwi whisky, as well as their rugby players, can conquer the world.

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A Pat on the Back for BenRiach & Co.

I make no secret of the fact that independent whisky producers have my approval. Independent whisky producers who capitalise on their minimal-strings business models to do something different are the subjects of my most blissful dramy daydreams.

BenRiach: showing the Speyside old dogs some new tricks.

The people behind the purchase of this Speyside distillery in 2004 have lifted the lid on this previously shy dame: there is a lot going on just off the main road between Rothes and Elgin. In 2008, GlenDronach joined the stable and dazzling standard together with bespoke bottlings have appeared in gratifying number. The BenRiach 12yo is as clean, soft and fruity as you could wish a Speysider to be, and its peated Curiositas 10yo takes peat in utterly new directions. I adore the complexity and power of the GlenDronach 15yo, and one of their single casks from a couple of decades ago is on the shopping list for next autumn.

From Batch #4 of the single cask releases, this highly praised specimen is out of my budget.

GlenDronach might stick to its guns with bruising, darkly fruity Sherry monsters, but the BenRiach portfolio is kaleidoscopic with triple distilled spirit having been produced since 2005. They have also reinstated the floor maltings. I can only imagine how extraordinary a heavily home-peated malt will taste like in a few years.

Of 2011, however, Managing Director for the two distilleries, Billy Walker said: ”we have been very fortunate to win a couple of top awards this year which reflect the passion our people bring to the art of whisky creation. They are also testament to the huge amount of time and energy we dedicate to our wood management programme.”

The awards he alludes to include the 2011 Malt Maniac Awards, the logistics of which I learnt from Keith Wood and that these are dedicated, passionate and discerning people singling out areas of the industry for special mention there can be no doubt. In addition to two gold, four silver and three brinze medals, the GlenDronach 1972 #712, from Batch 4 of the single cask releases, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

Praise came not only from the collective of the whisky appreciation world but one of its solo grandees. Jim Murray was especially complimentary about the company’s products. Billy Walker’s response was:

“Jim made a number of very kind comments in his new book, but the highpoint was his singling out GlenDronach as the distillery with the most consistently impressive output throughout 2011.

“He very generously concluded by saying: ‘If there was a Whisky Bible Scotch Malt Whisky Distillery of the year, GlenDronach would be it.’ That was very special.”

Between the pair of distilleries, they claimed nine awards at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge, two of which were top gongs and went to the BenRiach 12yo Sherry-matured. “For a small independent distillery like BenRiach, to win two trophies for the same single malt is astounding,” said Alistair Walker, Sales Director. “IWSC is the one every whisky producer wants to win.”

Congratluations, then, to the men and women behind these rejuvenated distilleries, whose products have always been recognised as distinctive, but are only now coming before a global audience.

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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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A Moustache-tickler of a Malt

November is something of an oddity, ecologically speaking. On the one hand, the last of the leaves are falling to earth in stunning heaps of biodegradable fire, and yet at the same time new growth is appearing. A frenzy of foliage is breaking out over top lips everywhere.

At this time of year, the Gregorian calendar is upstaged by allusions to facial hair. Movember is the charity mo-vement raising awareness for all matters concerning mens’ health, harnessing the power of the ‘tache to fight prostate and testicular cancer. Both genders can get involved in sporting some eccentric style of face fuzz and sponsoring others in their pursuit of the most outlandish, striking beards imagination (over and above good taste, usually) can conceive.

The charity has raised more than £106m globally so far and online whisky retailer Master of Malt, together with the very gentlemanly Speyside distillery Glenfarclas, have decided to lend their characteristically good-humoured muscle behind this year’s campaign. A 9yo bottling from two Oloroso sherry casks, at cask strength, is available now to purchase with £10 from the £39.95 RRP going directly to the charity. MoM promise that both parties are working at cost price to maximise donations for Movember. You ought to buy it anyway (do so here), but in case you were swithering, here are my tasting notes.

Glenfarclas 9yo Master of Malt Movember Bottling 2011, 53% abv.

Colour – Toffee apple red.

Nose – Straight away a pleasing toasted sweet malt aroma emerges. It wields a sticky fragrance reminiscent of the Whey Pat, St Andrews’ premier whisky pub: it’s all rich clean malt, polished wood, leather and nacho spice. Sticking your nose in further you encounter a bold - but not brazen – Oloroso sherry punch with an icing sugar-like sweet core. Marmalade is in there, too, along with heathery, big dark honey flavours. Mostly, though, that rich, ginger biscuit malt, with a touch of toffee, steals the show.

Water renders this dram even stickier: toffee and baked red fruits. Lovely candied citrus (orange and lemon) skips out with a bit more time. The oakiness builds, too, with floor polish. It is one lively whisky.

Palate – Playful across the palate at first with blueberries, redcurrents and strawberries. Then there is a light cling from the oak imparting vanilla, Spanish oak raw sweetness and prune.

With water the palate keeps the floor polish headiness, with a lick of sherry cask. Then the softness returns with orange-accented, smooth and rich maltiness. Fire lighters in the background. Punchy oregano and tomato sauce in the empty glass.

Finish – Jaffa Cakes, sticky dark sherry notes and treacle-like malt round off a stonking little dram. With water it is winey and oaky.

So…?     This was always going to be a winner with me. Previous experiences with cask strength Glenfarclases have not disappointed, and the closer one gets to a solitary cask bottling, the better they become. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so charming and assured, however. The maturation is absolutely perfect: not overpowering but still with enough intense Oloroso notes to create the true Glenfarclas experience. It was more coherent and personable without water, I would say, but either way a delightful and delicious reunion with this consistently excellent distillery.

Many thanks indeed to the guys at Master of Malt for sending me the sample.

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Go to Glengoyne – everyone else is doing it

Flocking to the Trossachs National Park, out of Glasgow’s northern back door,  is nothing new. People have been tramping up the hills and cooing at the lochs for a couple of hundred years now since the Victorian fetish for the Highland tableau established the area as a prime tourist spot. It would appear, however, that Glengoyne Distillery has succeeded in luring vast quantities of these souls out of the great outdoors and into its visitor’s book. Maybe the hill of Dumgoyne is the demographically-astute decoy.

The bottle-your-own facility and re-orientated shop.

Ian Macleod Distillers have invested £300,000 in upgrades to the visitor centre and shop to more appropriately welcome the 48,500 people who have traipsed Highland mud and gravel onto their carpets so far this year. More modifications are planned for 2012. These efforts, they say, maintain there position at the forefront of whisky tourism. Between their snug shop, tucked away behind the production buildings, and the sumptuous Manager’s House squatting further up the steep glen, Glengoyne has the facilities to accommodate all levels of interest and knowledge.

In the words of Stuart Hendry, Glengoyne Brand Heritage Manager: ‘The old shop area was very dark and didn’t make good use of space. Our brief to retail design agency Contagious was to create a brighter, more organised shopping area which showed off our award-winning range but without losing the distinct Glengoyne character.

‘I think we have hit the nail on the head and we are extremely happy with the outcome. Feedback from customers has been great and we have seen an increase in sales as a result.’

The alterations are not just in the aesthetic of the facilities, however, Glengoyne have also joined the bottle-your-won battalion. I would argue that there are quite enough single cask Glengoynes sitting, pre-packaged, in the shop already to agonise over, but it is jolly good fun all the same. At the moment spirit is from a first-fill American hogshead, distilled in 2000, and promioses heavy ’tropical fruit flavours’. At £75 it is towards the ‘premium’ end of the pricing structure.

Ian Macleod are fans of inovative whisky marketing and flavour possibilities (Smokehead anyone?) and have not rested on their laurels with their single malt distillery. They have added a raft of new multi-media in addition to their VC spruce-up with a series of films following custodians of Glengoyne’s flavour about their work. Duncan McNicoll is one such individual who can be spotted on screen before the tour and tending the stills during it. Stuart Hendry again: ‘The feedback from viewers is hugely positive. They enjoy getting behind the scenes and meeting the people. Visitors take particular pleasure in speaking to the stars as they meet them around the distillery yard.’

Well done, Glengoyne. With these alterations they can only have improved a whisky tourism experience which was already high up in the Premier League. I welcome any effort to reward fans of the dram who bother to make the journey in search of it with an experience that is just a little bit different. Whisky generally is in a confident place right now. I believe that by re-evaluating the role and character of a visitor centre that confidence can be better translated to the particular brand and those with an interest in it.

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